Top critical review
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on 22 August 2011
Ichikawa has emerged as a cult figure in the history of post-war cinema. Certainly, he directed some 90 films but many are frankly mediocre and this, dating from 1956, is one of them.
Call me a Philistine if you will, but I cannot join the arty-farty brigade who regard 'The Burmese Harp' as an anti-war cinematic masterpiece. I write simply as an enthusiastic film-goer and collector who, over a period of more than 70 years, has enjoyed viewing hundreds of REALLY good films.
The story-line of 'The Burmese Harp' is patently absurd. In the closing days of World War II, a unit of Japanese soldiers in Burma, making for the Thai border, discovers that hostilities have ended and that Japan has been heavily defeated. The unit is commanded by an officer who was a musician in civilian life and who has taught his men the elements of choral singing, a skill that they put to good use in moments of stress or depression. In addition, a talented Private by the name of Mizushima has acquired and taught himself to play upon a Burmese harp. This is useful because, apart from accompanying the choir, Mizushima can use his harp to signal back to the unit when he is sent out on reconnaissance. (Presumably, the enemy cannot hear him.)
One of the more bizarre sequences in the film occurs when the Japanese soldiers, hiding in a Burmese village from the advancing British, raise their spirits by singing a Japanese version of 'Home, Sweet Home'. As the Brits emerge from the jungle they, too, break into 'Home, Sweet Home', albeit in rather strangled English. (The film was actually shot in southern Japan, the actor playing Mizushima taking a quick trip to Burma to be filmed in front of a few pagodas and Buddha images to provide some authenticity.) The scene ends with both sides joining in a multilingual rendering of 'Home, Sweet Home' before the Japanese are marched off to an internment camp. Roll over, Morriston Male Voice Choir: you have nothing on these lads!
Meanwhile, Mizushima, armed with his harp rather than a rifle, has been sent to persuade another Japanese unit holed up in a mountain fastness, to surrender. He has promised to return to the internment camp at the conclusion of his mission which, unfortunately, is unsuccessful as the Japanese, in true Imperial spirit, vote to fight to the end. They are wiped out but Mizushima survives.
Mizushima now disguises himself as a monk for his journey to the internment camp; but along the way he comes across the unburied bodies of Japanese soldiers and sees the light. His true mission in life is to honour the Japanese war dead by burying or cremating their remains wherever he finds them. He takes instruction and enters the Buddhist monkhood, realising that he cannot now re-join his unit in captivity. In the vicinity of the internment camp he is spotted by his comrades in arms and an anguished debate ensues: is the monk really Mizushima and, if so, why has he abandoned them?
In another bizarre sequence, contact between Mizushima and his unit is now established by means of tame parrots, who have been taught a few words of Japanese. One of the few genuinely emotional scenes occurs when Mizushima appears outside the barbed wire fence of the camp and plays a farewell to his comrades - on his harp, of course.
Happily, the Japanese soldiers are to be repatriated and, en-route to Japan by ship, their commander reads them a valedictory letter from Mizushima, in which he explains his motives. He may never return to Japan: his role now is to wander the length and breadth of Burma, burying the remains of his countrymen wherever he finds them. He will find solace by playing his Burmese harp.
All this takes 117 minutes to watch. A longer version of the film has, mercifully, been lost. At least the English sub-titles are excellent and help one to understand what is going on.
Technically, I was almost as disappointed by the quality of this blu-ray release as I was by the movie itself. Filmed in black and white, the 1080p AVC encode is rather faded and washed out (perhaps this look was Ichikawa's intention) and does not bear comparision with other recently re-mastered B&W transfers of cinema classics on blu-ray. Apart from the usual pops and buzzes inherent in a 55 year old soundtrack, there is a lot of distortion, particularly during the musical climaxes.
I cannot say that I am sorry to have seen this weird film, which I found amusing rather than heart-rending, but my copy will be going to e-Bay rather than into my collection!